As I consider basing my writing platform in another country, it was obvious that I would need to learn another language or two. What wasn’t immediately apparent was that one of those languages would be English.
Growing up in America led me to believe that I was fluent in English, but as it turns out, my native tongue is American. Looking at the world, more people in America speak the English language than any other country (England is fifth), but there are two English languages, American English and British English. Most English speakers in the world speak British English, that is, those who speak English as a first language (considering Canada, Australia, India, and other countries are more British than American). The numbers on which English is more popular as a second language are difficult to define, but with the number of people in China who learn English growing, American English is on the rise. Which raises the question of fluency in the language. I have always considered myself fluent in English, but Lieve corrects me occasionally (Of nations in which English is not a primary language, Belgium ranks sixth in fluency). The thing is, she’s fluent in British English. I wonder about the measure of fluency, and how native English speakers would score on the test.
This is how I see this. Every language has dialects, but there should be a standard. Flemish, which is based on Dutch, has within its six million speakers several dialects. In fact Flemish itself is largely seen to be a dialect of Dutch, making Flemish dialects more dialects of a dialect. As in Bronx verses Staten Island within New York City within New York within American within English. I know people who cannot understand a language if there is an accent they are not familiar with. Emma couldn’t follow British, people in the North and South have difficulty understanding each other, and Lieve had to turn off a Flemish movie we were watching because she couldn’t understand the accent.
What brought all this to mind was a spelling issue, in which Lieve was able to demonstrate she is more fluent in British English than many British English speaking people. “Defence” verses “Defense”. I know that there are differences in spelling and pronounciation of many words, and these differences follow certain rules, so I was confused by a story from the BBC in which the spelling was “Defense”. I googled the question, and found that opinion was universal among both Americans and British speakers, defence is British, defense is American.
Lieve, whose mother was an English teacher in Belgium, knew the answer. “C” is the noun, “S” is the verb. Department of Defence, acting in self-defense. A little more research, now that I had a clue, proved the case. There is a standard in British English and Lieve, the Belgian, knew about it.
Understanding a language requires more than just knowing the words. I am fluent in English because I can understand the language, written or spoken, regardless of dialect or accent. I’m not sure how I’ll write English for a European audience, I’ve always mixed spellings in an attempt to maintain attention, and I believe that by using various idioms I foster greater understanding across dialects. That would be my goal, helping people understand each other. In order to help people understand each other, I have to be understood,
That may be the core of my frustration. I have difficulty reaching people who don’t want to be reached. It really has nothing to do with accents, every voice carries the tones of its path. It has more to do with the desire to be unique, rather than actually being unique. These are the people I most want to reach out to, and the ones least likely to be receptive.
In Flemish, they say “Maakt dat de kat wijs”. Literally “Make that the cat wise”, a rougher translation would be “Go tell it to the cat”. If you want to understand the meaning, it appears (to me) obvious, at least in context. It is a reply to an unbelievable story. If you were the one telling the unbelievable story, you might find it odd to share your “wisdom” with a cat, or you might understand that you were being called on your credibility. In America, we seldom literally pull someones leg, but people are accused of it all the time. By “all the time” most people would understand that I mean “frequently” rather than “constantly”.
There is probably a standard definition of the lines between “Language”, “Dialect”, “Accent”, and “Wanker” (particularly the last), but each distinction is driven by ego, the desire to be unique, special, and exclusive. A modern vision of Babel.